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Hip-Hop — and America — Are Changing, and Not for the Better

Hip-hop was rooted in politics and social justice and a diversity of voices. But now, at 50, has it become a minstrel show?

Hip hop icon, by Angelus (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”
ROBERT JOHNSON, “Cross Road Blues”

“Let me just take a second/
Just got a lot to get off my chest”

I am hip-hop. I was born and raised in a ghetto, a now 50-something Black man from one of America’s many inner cities weighted down by racism, poverty, violence, neglect, dreams deferred, desperate survival tactics, ugly police-community dynamics and, on constant repeat, hopelessness. This is why so many Black males across three generations utter these words to any who will listen: Hip-hop saved my life.

Because, quite literally, at least for me, it did. There would be no 16 books, no endless speech invites, no journalism career, no sojourn as a poet, and no traveling America and parts of the world if it were not for hip-hop. It gave me permission to use my voice, to probe why I was Black and straight outta poverty; and hip-hop taught me to strive for something, anything, against all odds. Hip-hop saved my life. It is simply not debatable for a nation of millions of us.

What is debatable is when hip-hop began. Yes, hip-hop can mark Aug. 11, 1973 — 50 years ago this summer — as the day it all jumped off, when West Indian immigrants Cindy Campbell and her brother Clive Campbell, AKA DJ Kool Herc, threw a back-to-school party in the community room of their 1520 Sedgwick Ave. building in the South Bronx, New York City. For years though, some hip-hop heads, me included, believed it was actually November of 1974, up in the Bronx, per the Universal Zulu Nation and another founding figure of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa. Later, I’m told, it was Bambaataa who decided, in a closed-door meeting, that the origin story should point toward Herc and Cindy and 1973 instead.

But I believe it is deeper than squabbles over this or that date. In 1967, six years before Sedgwick Avenue, a couple of significant things happened. One, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke with the heart and soul of the Civil Rights Movement, and boldly came out against war, declaring that the United States was sending poor Blacks and poor whites to fight poor Asian people in a place called Vietnam, and that America was the greatest purveyor of violence on this earth. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning King was blasted as a traitor and unpatriotic.

And second, Kool Herc arrived from Jamaica that same year, making his way to the Bronx, the anointed and undisputed homeland of hip-hop. One year later King would be dead, assassinated, but not before he began to spread the gospel of a “Poor People’s Campaign,” a crusade for folks like the poor African Americans, West Indians and Puerto Ricans in the Bronx who would later give birth to hip-hop. These were people from the very same class King warned us not to abandon and forget. In other words, what does it matter if you can sit anywhere on the bus, or at a lunch counter, if you have no money to ride the bus, no money to buy a burger?

That means hip-hop, from the very beginning, had one humble definition: Making something from nothing. From its inception, hip-hop was rooted in politics, in social justice, by virtue of the fact that the four core elements of the culture — deejaying, dancing, rapping and graffiti writing — were a middle-finger response to racism and classism, to white flight from urban centers like New York and Compton, to being abandoned, forgotten and erased, just like Black history and Black books, say, are being erased, banned, whitewashed, in states like Ron DeSantis’ Florida in 2023.

I remember what hip-hop made me feel — and think — when I first heard The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979; or when I first saw graffiti on entire subways; or when I first danced to the beats that were not those of my mother’s Motown or James Brown,  but residue of those sounds that we, like mad scientists, broke apart, recycled, chopped, cut and scratched, until we had something that was spectacularly ours. Making something from nothing. I felt free, alive, that in spite of the impoverished conditions under which my single mother and I lived, I finally had music, art forms, a culture that belonged uniquely to me. I tagged graffiti with my Magic Marker. I learned how to pop and lock and break dance, on unfolded cardboard boxes, on unkind concrete. I memorized early rapper rhymes although I never had the audacity to spit them aloud, except when no one was looking. I watched my then-best friend construct his own sound system in his bedroom, intersecting electronics and a hand-made wooden coffin in which to place his two turntables, with his vinyl records to the side. And I wore the hats, the shirts, the pants, the jackets, the coats, the jewelry, and the footwear which have become the uniforms, the mobile fashion shows, generation to generation, of hip-hop.

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Yes, I have been a participant, a documentarian, and an activist within and around hip-hop culture for 44 of these 50 years. Hip-hop taught me how to use my voice (Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”), and hip-hop taught me about Black political and cultural rebels like John Coltrane and Assata Shakur and Nina Simone and Malcolm X. Hip-hop taught me to question police brutality (N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police”), and hip-hop gave me delectable snippets of Black history absent from my formal education. Hip-hop instructed me to study jazz (practically anything by A Tribe Called Quest), and hip-hop gave me my first and only full-time job as a writer at Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine. Hip-hop led me to pen three cover stories for Vibe about the most famous rapper ever, Tupac Shakur, and hip-hop has given me so many words and phrases with which to guide my life to this day.

But as we know, culture, similar to politics, comes in ebbs and flows of astonishing awareness and activity, and bottomless confusion and inertia, and that has been no different with hip-hop. Hip-hop was always party music, with all the good and the not-so-good, that that entails. But there was also a movement of in-your-face Afrocentric and Black radical chic hip-hop from the late 1980s to the 1990s, largely a response to the Reagan Revolution and its awful trickle-down effects on people of color, that included Public Enemy, X Clan and KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions. But when Dr. Dre’s landmark album The Chronic appeared all over MTV in 1993 and sold about 6 million units, it was not just the end of the Black Power era in hip-hop, but also the beginning of a Hollywood-like reproduction of the same movie over and over again.

Today, in 2023, three decades since The Chronic, we’ve gone from fighting the power to recreating and mass-producing the worst aspects of that hugely successful record: endless use of the n-word for Black people; endless use of the b-word for women; a seemingly endless hatred for queer and transgender people; an intense obsession with guns, with violence in all forms, with drug-selling and drug-taking, with money and material things; and anti-anything that even remotely questions the images and words we put forth.

Scan closely the Billboard pop and hip-hop charts from early 1993 forward and, with a few exceptions, it is the same formula for hip-hop success: across U.S. presidents and technology innovations and generations of us, from Rodney King to George Floyd, from Death Row Records to Tekashi69, from Tupac and Biggie to podcasts and the murder of Pop Smoke: Black self-hatred, hatred of women, destroy, self-destruct, kill or be killed, anything for a dollar, even if it leads to real-life drama, or murder. Gone, for the most part, is the agitating for political change, the diversity of voices; instead, rap’s activist roots have been completely eclipsed by its lowest common denominator: nihilism and greed.

Meanwhile, the few rappers that do get political are frolicking with far-right Republicans like it’s no big deal. We see Ice Cube driving former Fox News Channel anchor Tucker Carlson, who has spread racist conspiracy theories and stoked white fear, around the ‘hood, with nary a care about the optics of the act — the same Ice Cube who co-wrote N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police,” and became a megastar as one of those early 1990s rappers speaking out against injustice. We see Kanye West, now known as Ye, wearing a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap and declaring his love for Donald Trump. And we see Kanye running for president and espousing despicable antisemitism, among many other choice, far-right misadventures.

Over the years, hip-hop has spawned a generation of rap-influenced politicians and activists, from Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka to House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) to Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). (And I myself even ran for Congress in Brooklyn, N.Y., unsuccessfully, in 2008 and 2010.) But it pains me that you don’t see that same fight-the-power spirit reflected in today’s music.

It would be a lie to say that hip-hop has not always been a party music, a music supremely popular with young people of every generation since the 1970s, when it has been just that. But it has also seen epic and provocative political statements during that period we call the Golden Era of hip-hop, roughly 1984-1998, from the rise of Run-DMC as hip-hop’s first super group, to the otherworldly success of the album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, arguably the most important and enduring hip-hop-inspired record ever.

There was no such thing, not to us within the culture during the Golden Era, as political rap, as gangster rap, as conscious rap, any of that. Much of these were terms coined by certain kinds of media, namely mainstream outlets not rooted in the culture, which is partly why I started writing about hip-hop myself. It was all hip-hop, and just like George Orwell once said everything is political, there was no need for us to separate hip-hop into categories. The very fact that Black and Latinx young people were expressing themselves freely, with their music, dance and visual art, was by its very nature political. Which is why it was not unusual for a wide array of artists, during this Golden Era, to have at least one song per album that waxed poetic about a political or social justice issue, be it Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” or Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” or De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa.” Why? Because hip-hop has also always been the voice of the invisible, the unheard, the ignored. And there is simply no way a culture born during the upheavals of post-Civil Rights and post-Vietnam America could be promoting anti-social messages; not a culture that also traveled through the dark periods of crack, AIDS, Reagan and Bush policies, remarkably easy access to guns in our ‘hoods, the bloody eruption of gang warfare and the prison-industrial complex. So, in these highly polarized times, why aren’t we seeing that same political push today?

I believe that hip-hop, beginning with its explosion as the dominant pop art in America, and globally, in the early 1990s, was also co-opted, commodified, turned into something else. I recall vividly Tupac Shakur, during one of our interviews for Vibe, complaining about the record label execs who told him political or socially conscious hip-hop was not selling any longer, that he was essentially wasting his time making that sort of music.

Actually, “that sort of music” sold quite well, as mere months before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic dropped, the politically minded Arrested Development album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… was released, selling 4 million units. So, who decided that socially conscious rap didn’t sell, and why would someone say that to Tupac Shakur, the son of former Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur, who named her son after Tupac Amaru, the legendary South American revolutionary? I remember thinking it was, well, odd, that roughly at the beginning of the Bill and Hillary Clinton years in the White House suddenly the politics and social justice messages in the music were gone, mysteriously. Did rappers, including Tupac, methodically become mostly or completely apolitical?

With Tupac, coming from poverty as most of us did, he made a conscious choice: put the politics to the side so he could make real money. But that phase of his career would be short-lived. In 1996, a scant three months after his 25th birthday, the artist was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip, his killer remaining free — and unknown — to this day. As for the others, I believe hip-hop had become dangerous to some, in politics, in corporate America, at record labels, in the media, when rappers began to interrogate the political system, and this country’s warts from uncompromisingly honest angles, when some dared to confront the status quo — as Dr. King had done a generation before.

So, alas, and tragically, what hip-hop has been turned into, mostly, post-1998-era Lauryn Hill, has been a modern-day version of America’s long love affair with the minstrel show, that diabolical and inhumane and extremely profitable brand of entertainment that said Black folks were ugly, dumb, lazy, useless, violent, dangerous, overly sexualized, prone to be perpetual children and totally lacking in any morals whatsoever. Minstrelsy was the dominant entertainment in America for about 100 years, with racist stereotypes that did major damage to Black people, and by extension to every nook of America. Just like the past 25-plus years or so of these stereotypical hip-hop lyrics and images on a loop have done major damage to large chunks of the very communities that built hip-hop, and by extension to every nook of America. Ultimately, racism hurts all of us.

If you grew up poor and deprived, as I did, self-hating and self-defeating, as I was, there were no balanced images of you in your education — or, as Lauryn Hill declared, your “miseducation”— no seeing yourself as a whole human being in history, math, science, literature, nowhere at all. And, if, like me, you only get to see yourself in the popular culture of your times, you will, inevitably, see yourself as ugly, vile, worthless, an “other.” And you will come to hate yourself, and hate people who look like you, and believe in your gut, they, we, are nothing more than the n-word and the b-word.

Poor people do not want to be poor, and that definitely includes the poor people who created hip-hop. But as the lucky few  JAY-Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake — have transcended and become global pop and cultural ambassadors, we have to ask at what cost, to them, to Black America, to Black people worldwide? They all readily have used the n-word as if it is a first name, middle name, last name. They all readily thrust themselves headfirst into some of the most vile and sexist lyrical content imaginable. They all readily have rapped about violence in some form, casually tossing around toxic manhood stereotypes as if they were their birthright. They all readily show(ed) off their money, their material assets, even while the majority of the communities from which many of them come continue to struggle financially, just like back in 1973. And they all readily duck and dodge any political or social justice messages in their music, with the exception of a very different Kanye, in the 2000s.

If the JAY-Z we see now — with his massive commemorative exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library — can be someone who fashions himself after Jean-Michel Basquiat, that means he knew better. If 50 Cent can become a multimedia mogul, that means he knew better. If Kanye West can have a college professor mother, that means he knew better. If Lil Wayne could be a high school honors student, as he was, that means he knew better. And if Drake could be a preppy child actor born and bred in Canada, with a Black American musician father and a Jewish Canadian schoolteacher mother, that means he knew better, too. But each of these men, I believe, fell into line with what was selling records, as Tupac was told, and wound up becoming the leaders of the pack. Just like women rappers such as Nikki Minaj and Cardi B and Ice Spice feel they have to literally strip down, to be what America and the world says Black and Latinx women are — sex objects, the modern-day Venus Hottentot forever on display — in order to have careers, to have anything, really. Making something out of nothing. Even if that something means selling our souls and our bodies to make a dollar out of 15 cents.

Kendrick Lamar is different, the way, say, John Lennon of The Beatles became different, because he began to realize that while hip-hop, yes, brought him great fame and fortune, he still felt a responsibility to the people, in the tradition of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti and Woody Guthrie. That the point of hip-hop was not just to become another capitalist, this time in rap Blackface, but to actually push back against the capitalism that has decimated communities like his in Southern California across generations. As Lauryn Hill determined she wanted to be who she was on her terms, Kendrick Lamar, who became the first rap artist to win a Pulitzer in 2018, came to the very same conclusion. But just because Kendrick sold records and won that Pulitzer does not mean overall his political voice is the norm in hip-hop. If anything, that award highlights the fact that there is a vast void between him and most other rappers, a terrible scenario for the music, for the culture.

That is why it’s a wonder in these very dark political times that a record like Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers could break through the cracks. There he is gut-punching racism, sexism, adultery, fatherhood, homophobia, even his own depression and suicidal thoughts. Lamar is not just looking out, but also looking within, as Marvin Gaye did, as Lennon did. What makes Kendrick Lamar such an exception, and such an anomaly?

Why do the men rappers, men hip-hop radio personalities, men hip-hop podcast hosts, believe they must be cartoon figures — as we were in those minstrel shows — to make a bag of money? Why do certain women rappers believe they have to sell their bodies to make a name for themselves, including someone as thoughtful and intelligent and resilient as Megan Thee Stallion, she of a college education and an op-ed in The New York Times? There’s a thin line between sexual liberation, which I support 100 percent, and pimpin’ yourself.

Better yet, if we can agree that America itself was founded on racism and sexism and classism, that means that any culture we’ve witnessed ascend to the skies, be it jazz or rock and roll or hip-hop, will most assuredly be a mirror of where our society is on any given dayThe hard-core reality is that while women have been a part of hip-hop from the very beginning, be it Cindy Campbell with the official first event, or Sylvia Robinson, the head of Sugar Hill Records who put out “Rapper’s Delight,” the first commercial hit, there is no denying hip-hop has largely been a male-dominated culture. This is so evident in this 50th anniversary year of hip-hop when major celebrations like the Rock The Bells Festival in Queens, N.Y., and the massive Yankee Stadium tribute in the Bronx revealed how little women rappers are regarded, relegating most of the women performers, even the unconquerable MC Lyte, to the early part of the concerts, when hardly any audience was present. Then there’s the recent sentencing of rapper Tory Lanez, who savagely shot Megan Thee Stallion in her feet; before he was convicted, Megan had to withstand much social media abuse, and also nasty dis record lyrics from Drake.

Moreover, this is not merely a generational thing, as some older hip-hop heads are quick to suggest when trashing, say, hip-hop of this year, of the past decade, of this century. The sexism and toxic lyrics toward women and girls (not to mention rappers accused of physical and sexual assault) was there in the 1970s and the 1980s and the 1990s; this is not just some recent hip-hop music thing. Or, as the scholar bell hooks once said to me long before she died, when she listened to a lot of the hip-hop-inspired Black music she felt that Black men, specifically — the de facto faces and heads of hip-hop — hate(d) Black women.

A painful thing to hear, but as we say, where is the lie?

Where hip-hop was supposed to be a vehicle that challenged oppression, discrimination, hatred and enthusiastic ignorance, we’ve become a gas pump filling the tank of oppression, discrimination, hatred and enthusiastic ignorance. God bless Snoop Dogg for re-inventing himself, again and again. But why is the same Snoop Dogg who attended MTV’s Video Music Awards in the 1990s with young women of color on leashes as if they were dogs, now in his 50s, onstage at Yankee Stadium in 2023, with one barely-dressed young woman of color after another sliding up and down a stripper pole? Apparently, his reinvention went only so far.

This is the crossroads hip-hop is at as we celebrate hip-hop at 50. To paraphrase a Tupac Shakur line, we were given this world, we did not make it. True, indeed, true enough. But this anniversary should not just be a moment for glossy celebrations. The question, right now, we should all be asking ourselves about hip-hop is pretty basic: What other people, anywhere on this earth, are allowed, encouraged, under the guise of being legit, real, to call themselves the rough equivalent of the n-word or the b-word, watch it be recorded, mixed, mastered and spread everywhere, like Covid, for the entire world to digest? What has happened, politically, socially, within hip-hop, has, in some ways, set us back as much as far-right politics.

This is also why we can point to any popular hip-hop podcast with this rapper or that hip-hop adjacent figure, and behold conversational mayhem, old and new beefs and threats of violence reminiscent of the worst of Jerry Springer’s talk show. There is hip-hop culture, which was erected to be about life and light and possibilities. And then there is the hip-hop industry, which traffics in death and destruction. Is it any wonder that since the murders of Tupac and Biggie in 1996 and 1997, respectively, there have literally been murders of one rapper or another pretty much every year since 2001? Most were shot, the majority of the cases unsolved, yet the music — thanks to those who distribute and highlight it — still pushes violence and chaos, like it’s no big deal.

We in America love to celebrate anniversaries, sometimes too soon, too prematurely. America is also at a crossroads, politically, socially: Do we believe in peace, love, democracy and respect for each other? Or do we believe in violence, hate, division and fear? I, too, am at a crossroads, of my hip-hop life past and my hip-hop life present, wondering how I — we — got here. I am both so incredibly happy and likewise so incredibly sad that hip-hop has made it to 50 years old. Happy because it is my culture. I have been a hip-hop head for life, and like hip-hop I, too, have made it to my 50s, even when naysayers said I would not, that we would not. Sad because I feel my mortality. I feel my bones quaking every single time I hear of the death of local folks, or of famous hip-hop folks like DMX, like Shock G, like Coolio. We ducked and dodged the madness of our youth, only to be felled in middle age.

I think of how surreal it is that we now have hip-hop millionaires and billionaires. But I also ponder how that is any different than the mostly white and wealthy social class in America — the 1 percent — who are good while multitudes around them struggle? I think of the very cities where hip-hop was first incubated, how they have been ridiculously gentrified, and there is a pandemic of homelessness coast to coast, unlike anything we’ve seen since The Great Depression — and how a growing number of the homeless are younger Black males. Who is speaking to and for them? How is the flaunting of riches by certain people in hip-hop any different from the Elon Musks of the world, out for self, not for we, the people?

Equally, hip-hop needs more of a Chance The Rapper speaking passionately about mental health issues, more of a Tobe Nwigwe sitting shoulder to shoulder with his wife and children and community members in his music videos, more of the balanced and righteous spirit of Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and The Staple Singers. Have a career, yes, make your bag, yes, but care about something other than social media likes and poppin’ bottles at parties.

Some might say I’m a dreamer, and I will accept that, but for me the answers lie on that hot and sweaty Friday afternoon of this year 2023, August 11th, when my wife and I decided to take a pilgrimage up to 1520 Sedgwick Ave., the assumed birthplace of hip-hop. To our surprise only a few were there, diehard hip-hop heads like us. Most folks were heading to Yankee Stadium for the Hip-Hop 50 live concert. We passed on that. We wanted instead to be on this narrow strip of the South Bronx, where you could see local residents hustling trinkets and cool drinks near the front entrance of the apartment building where they say it all began.

Down the street a bit were mounds of trash and the homeless, camped out against graffitied walls. On this little plot of history, I met a young white man from Austria, only in his 20s, whose name I cannot recall. It was his first time in New York City, he told me, adding that he has been a hip-hop head since a boy, just like me, and had decided he had to be here on this day. It warmed my heart as this young man, born long after hip-hop crawled its way into the universe, told me his story, how hip-hop, too, saved his life, gave him a voice, a purpose, spoke to his soul, as it had done for me decades before. I marveled at how this culture, this art form born of resistance, created by Black and Latinx people, could be so glorious and beautiful and layered that it could touch someone so profoundly. So much so that this young white man felt compelled to find his way to the Bronx, because he needed to see for himself the community that built Planet Hip-hop. 

If there is any grace, and mercy, for hip-hop today, it is that we take pride in the fact that something we created from nothing in the ghettos of America has transfixed people, across identities and regions worldwide, that this young man from Austria knew his life mattered, because hip-hop — two turntables, a microphone, spray paint, and dance moves copied here, there, everywhere — had told him so. Just as it had done for me, way back in the day.

Kevin Powell is a poet, human and civil rights activist, filmmaker, hip-hop historian, and author of 16 books, including The Kevin Powell Reader, his collected writings. His 17th book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur. And his new spoken word poetry album, Grocery Shopping With My Mother, is available on all music streaming platforms.

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